March 6, 1998
It has been nearly twenty years since the Islamic revolution toppled Iran's pro-Western government of the Shah. Since then, U.S.-Iran relations have been virtually frozen. But recent events, most notably the election of President Khatami, may signal a change in Iran's policies. Following a report from Iran, Charles Krause and guests discuss the future of U.S.-Iran relations.
CHARLES KRAUSE: The Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia is a school of communications, not regional studies or diplomacy. Yet, it was here in a basement classroom last Thursday that Penn's Political Science Department hosted the first public exchange between Iran and the United States since the hostage crisis nearly 20 years ago. Iran and the U.S. haven't had formal diplomatic relations ever since.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
March 6, 1998
A background report from Iran.
Is it time to renew dialogue with Iran?
December 15, 1997
President Khatami calls for a dialogue with the West.
May 26, 1997
Mohammad Khatami is elected president of Iran .
January 30, 1997
The State Department's annual report on human rights violations .
March 13, 1996
A summit on terrorism is held in Egypt .
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the Middle East.
Iranian Embassy in Canada
News, views and information on Iran from NetIran.
A historic meeting.
Given the two decades of hostility, last week's meeting was historic. But it wasn't official. Technically, neither the Iranian nor the American participants were there representing their governments, only themselves. Still, both governments knew the meeting was taking place. And it came just weeks after a group of American wrestlers visited Tehran, another sign that the dialogue which Iran's new government has called for has now begun. Representing Iran in Philadelphia last week was Dr. Moustaffa Torkzahrani, an academic reportedly close to Iran's new president, Mohammed Khatami. And representing the United States was Bruce Laingen. Laingen was the highest ranking American diplomat held captive during the hostage crisis. Now retired from the Foreign Service, he remains an active participant in U.S.-Iranian affairs. Because of internal conflicts in Iran between Khatami's moderates and fundamentalist hardliners Iran's new president does not want it to appear that his government is talking directly to the U.S. government. So to avoid photographs at no time during the encounter in Philadelphia did Professor Torkzahrani appear side by side with Amb. Laingen.
MOUSTAFFA TORKZAHRANI: There is one thing which is very important to our people, and that is the clear distinction between people and the government policy. This is especially true for the people of the United States of America. It is why our President Khatami chose as his audience the people of the United States, and not policy makers. And it is why I am speaking to you at the University of Pennsylvania today.
CHARLES KRAUSE: During the first part of his speech, Torkzahrani emphasized that President Khatami believes in elections and democratic values and is determined to end the fundamentalist excesses that have characterized Iran since the revolution two decades ago. Khatami is also determined to improve Iran's relations with the outside world, according to the professor.
President Khatami: "Our revolution is a revolution of words."
MOUSTAFFA TORKZAHRANI: Khatami's foreign policy stance is characterized by a desire for dialogue in place of conflict. In the words of Khatami, himself, "Our revolution is a revolution of words." This approach, along with consolidation of power in the hands of the people during the last election, has prepared the ground for a turning point in Iran's foreign policy. Thus, a new window of opportunity has been created for other nations to re-think their attitudes toward Iran.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Yet, much of the speech was a litany of Iranian complaints about the U.S., not a blueprint for how the U.S. and Iran might go about re-establishing relations.
MOUSTAFFA TORKZAHRANI: The perception of the Iranian people is that following the Cold War, the psychological dimension of American foreign policy necessitates the existence of some kind of enemy. In the absence of Communism, Iran becomes the target. Picturing Iran as enemy is one way of justifying military expenditure and foreign policy. In general, it can be said the effect of efforts of successive American administrations to isolate Iran has been to isolate America instead.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Indeed, Torkzahrani said that one of the reasons the Iranians are now so cautious in trying to re-engage the U.S. government is that previous attempts have been rebuffed. Specifically, the professor mentioned the U.S. reaction to an Iranian decision in 1995 that would have allowed the American oil company, CONOCO, to develop oil and gas fields off Iran's coast. President Clinton decided the billion dollar deal was a violation of U.S. economic sanctions aimed at punishing Iran for its alleged support of terrorists and its opposition to the Middle East peace process.
MOUSTAFFA TORKZAHRANI: When the CONOCO deal was halted by the American government, there was some surprise in Iran. The concern was not that the deal was a major one, which it was not, but that it had been intended by Iranian authorities as a gesture from our side. The gesture, if it was ever recognized, was rejected. If there is real will on the part of the American government to better relations with Iran, that will must be tangibly demonstrated through reconsideration of policies, such as the sanctions and release of Iranian assets. Otherwise, I believe, there is no need for the government of Iran to jeopardize its legitimacy for nothing.
CHARLES KRAUSE: And now the American response. As we reported, Bruce Laingen was the other speaker at the session in Philadelphia. Laingen was the highest-ranking American diplomat held captive during the hostage crisis nearly 20 years ago. He's now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, a private organization of retired senior diplomats. Also joining us is Robin Wright, a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times who travels frequently to Iran and who's written extensively on that country. Thank you both for joining us. Mr. Ambassador, you were in Philadelphia. You heard the professor as a former diplomat and hostage. What was your reaction?
The importance of the meeting.
BRUCE LAINGEN: I was glad to be there. I was glad he was there. It was an important speech, however isolated it was in one place. But it was the first speech by a person representing the government of Iran, I believe, in the United States laying out their views on both what's going on inside that country and what their expectations are in the United States. In that sense it was a very important signal from the government of Iran toward the United States.
CHARLES KRAUSE: And what about the list of criticisms--his main contention being that it's the U.S. Government that has been uninterested and not responsive to the gestures, which the Iranians have been making for some time?
BRUCE LAINGEN: Well, we know what the issues are. We know what their concerns are. We know what their grievances are. I think they know what ours are. We're recited them frequently. The important thing is now to get, in my view, all the more reason to sit down and talk, all the more reason to have what we're experiencing now, a series of signals back and forth. That was one and a very important one from our side was the one from President Clinton a month or so ago in the occasion of Ede, the end of Ramadan, in which he said that he looked forward to good relations with Iran, noting that we have major differences but saying it was important, he believed these were not insurmountable. That was a very important signal, and it should--I hope it was received that way in Tehran.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Robin Wright, would you agree that the President's remarks, that that was a very important signal?
ROBIN WRIGHT: Yes. In fact, the administration worked for weeks in trying to figure out how to respond in an appropriate way to President Khatami's overture, wanting to send a message back to Tehran but also not in such a huge way that might make it more difficult for him because he's got problems at home too in terms of this initiative.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Problems, what kind of problems?
ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, obviously your piece pointed out that President Khatami faces challenges from the religious right, and what I think he's trying to do in this peace people-to-people initiative is create a fait accompli on the ground, to build the environment in which the United States is once again welcome, that Americans traveling to Iran are welcome. There have been a number of tourist groups, for example, for the past year going over and the pace of that's to accelerate. The first group of academics went to Iran a week ago, and more expected in the next couple of months. And the kind of publicity they generate--I got a call today from Tehran because I'm going next month, and they wanted to put an item in the newspaper now. I've gone every year basically since the revolution, but they're kind of drawing attention to the fact that Americans are coming and embracing the idea. And I think that's really one of the fundamental first steps that President Khatami has to take to create a new environment to legitimize the kind of direct overture that the United States really wants.
BRUCE LAINGEN: Robin's lucky. She's been there recently and I haven't.
CHARLES KRAUSE: And why is that? Could you go?
Bruce Laingen: "I'm not sure this is the right time for a former hostage to go back."
BRUCE LAINGEN: Yes. I assume I could get a visa. I'm not sure this is the right time for a former hostage to go back.
CHARLES KRAUSE: What is your--
BRUCE LAINGEN: We need to wait a while for that.
CHARLES KRAUSE: What is your sense of the atmosphere here in Washington? Is Washington ready to--for a rapprochement with Iran?
BRUCE LAINGEN: I'd like to believe that it is. I don't sit here necessarily representing the United States Government. But I think I have some idea of how it feels, and I sense that there are--that the United States is looking--I have to read what the President said. That clearly suggests to me that he believes too that this government believes that--at least the executive branch of government--we have to draw that distinction--believes strongly that this--we need to get off the dime, put it in the vernacular.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Robin Wright, if you agree with that, why do we need to get off the dime, what's happening?
Robin Wright: "I think you've seen for the first time in twenty years really a fundamental shift that both sides are interested."
ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, I think you've seen for the first time in twenty years really a fundamental shift that both sides are interested. In the past we've been interested when they haven't and vice versa. We've always been going in opposite directions. I think you see two presidents today who are very much interested in re-engaging, and I'm told that at the highest levels that this president in the United States is particularly intrigued by the possibilities, sees it even potentially as his China, that he could end the longstanding deadlock in relations between the two countries, and I think that's been reflected, for example, during the Iraq crisis when he sent a message to the Iranians that our actions in the Persian Gulf were aimed just at Iraq and appreciated that Iran's past neutrality, and the fact that the State Department just a week ago not only encouraged Americans to go to Iran but welcomed Iranians to come to the United States.
BRUCE LAINGEN: I'd like to think, Charles, that this Iran-Iraq crisis that we've been through, not necessarily though yet but going through has helped develop a stronger awareness in Washington, and among all concerned. There's Iran too. Iran is of considerable strategic concern to the United States, and we shouldn't forget that. You know, to borrow from real estate, location, location, location matters a lot. Iran is there with great consequence for American strategic interests in that part of the world. We need to talk about those.
CHARLES KRAUSE: At the same time you--there are some obstacles. We're kind of making it sound as if this is all well underway, but what are the problems? What are the obstacles? What has to happen for the two governments to re-establish relations?
BRUCE LAINGEN: We've got to find a way to talk. We've got to sit in front--at the beginning to find--to start talking about how to talk. We don't even know that yet. But we have no dialogue at all. We can exchange signals, and that's important. The lowering of rhetoric on both sides, you can't have negotiations when rhetoric is sort of boiling up here. Both sides, I think, are appreciating that.
CHARLES KRAUSE: And that's happening?
Bruce Laingen: We need to shake some more hands somewhere."
BRUCE LAINGEN: I think that's happening, and in my view, you know, Bill Richardson is reported recently as having shook hands with the foreign minister in Davos. We need to shake some more hands somewhere. We need to find some quiet corner, in my view, where trusted emissaries on both sides can sit down--maybe Oslo, Helsinki, Geneva, and start talking about how to talk.
CHARLES KRAUSE: But very briefly, what are the issues they have to talk about once they start talking?
BRUCE LAINGEN: Our concerns of course are obvious--the field of terrorism, the concern about weapons of mass destruction, and their position on the Israeli peace process--those are very important concerns. They know them. The have concerns about our view of course. The sanctions are there; they don't particularly like those sanctions.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Economic sanctions.
BRUCE LAINGEN: Economic sanctions, and they are having a significant impact on the economic potential of that country. They--as your interview indicated earlier--they've got some strong concerns about our failure to respond to their position on Beruit hostages, on--
CHARLES KRAUSE: A gesture.
BRUCE LAINGEN: A number of other things--gestures that they've made. And their position not least in the Gulf War, where they stayed out of it.
CHARLES KRAUSE: And very quickly, Robin, tell me, do you see any changes in Iran's policies that might match some of the rhetoric?
ROBIN WRIGHT: I think so. I think the fact that they've come out publicly and said that on the Rushdie edict the condemning of Salman Rushdie, the author of "Satanic Verses," to death nine years ago, have said they will not try to kill him if they can't get the edict lifted, that is a small gesture.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Peace process.
ROBIN WRIGHT: Of peace process--sending a message through Yasser Arafat that it is prepared--while it disagrees with the process--doesn't think it's going to be successful, that if Yasser Arafat accepts something, they're prepared to accept it too, and that is I think a major step and Arafat carried that message to the administration about six weeks ago.
CHARLES KRAUSE: All right. I'm afraid we are going to have to leave it there, but I want to thank you both, Amb. Laingen, Robin Wright, for joining us. Thank you.